"Owly," Teton Raptor Center Resident Great Horned Owl Photo: Lindsay Linton

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Fun Fact

Great-horned owls are one of the few natural predators of skunks. They have no sense of smell!

Etymology

Bubo is from the Latin word meaning "owl" or from the Greek word for "eagle owl" used by the great 1st century Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus.  Virginianus refers to "Virginia" where the first type specimen was collected. 

Conservation Status

IUCN Least Concern

Identification

Great-horned Owls are the largest species of owl in the lower 48 states by weight. They are most distinguishable by their prominent ear-tufts which assist as cammogflauge and behavioral signals. They have large yellow eyes in a rounded face. Owl eyes are fixed in the socket, they have to turn their heads (270 degrees) in order to look around them. Owl ears are found on the sides of the facial disk, marked by dark crescent shapes. Their ears are offset to allow the owl to triangulate the source of a sound. Their front is usually a lighter shade than their back. Great-horned owls are highly camouflauged, their feathers are spotted and striped with grey, brown and black to resemble bark on a tree. Unlike other birds of prey, owls are completely covered in feathers, including their legs, all the way down to the tips of their toes. Their feathers are flexible and soft, the frayed-looking edges enable owls to fly silently.

Length

46-63 cm (18.1-24.8 in)

Wingspan

101-145 cm (39.8-57.1 in)

Weight

910-2500 g (32.1-88.2 oz)

Distribution

Found from subarctic North America to Central and South America to Tierra del Fuego. Great-horned Owls are found in every US state except Hawaii, in a wide array of habitats. (Range map below)

Perched Great Horned Owl.
Photo:Mary Patno

Habitat

Great-horned Owls are generalists and can survive in varied habitats. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and rain forests, prairie or mountainous terrain, tundra and rocky coasts, and sometimes mangrove swamps. They are also increasingly found in urban areas. Young or unmated birds move around freely and leave food-scarce areas in the winter. Mated adult pairs are non-migratory residents.

Prey

Great-horned Owls will prey on mammals, birds, and reptiles. The majority of their diet is made up of small mammals up to the size of raccoons, hares, and skunks. They will also prey on a variety of birds from song birds the size of kinglets to birds the size of herons, water birds, raptors and even snowy owls. They will occasionally eat reptiles, fish, amphibians, crustaceans and insects.

Owlet. Photo: Irene Greenberg

Behavior

Great-horned Owls are nocturnal predators. They hunt using their incredible night vision and precise hearing. They often will locate prey from a perch and then swoop onto prey slowly but silently. They use their talons to catch and dispatch prey. Their talons have 200-300 lbs of crushing force. After consumption, owls regurgitate pellets in the same place. Pellets are all the parts of the prey item that the owl doesn't digest such as the fur or feathers, and most of the bones. Great-horned Owls are the hooting owls of North America, their call is noticeable hoot with four or five syllables. Younger birds will hiss and make screeching sounds more than adults.

Breeding

Great-horned Owls breed in late January or early February and have usually chosen a mate by December. They do not make any contribution to the nest and typically commandeer old bird nests commandeered from corvids or other raptors, or sometimes large squirrel nests. Tree cavities, cliffs and manmade platforms are also used. A pair will incubate 2 eggs/clutch typically for 30-37 days. Owlets fledge at 6-7 weeks but can remain dependent on the adults for as late in the season as October.Young can stay near the parents for as long as until the start of the next nesting season. They breed as adults at about 2-3 years old.

Copyright Notice

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Citation

InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0 . Arlington, Virginia (USA): NatureServe. Available: http://www.natureserve.org/infonatura. (Accessed: April 7, 2013 ).

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